The Conspiracy

This Week, I Have Nothing to Say

 

. CC via Pixabay

This past week has left me, and many others, searching for answers to questions I only recently realized I had. What follows is a series of thoughts that I had over the last ten days.

Privilege, at perhaps its most basic and functional iteration, is the ability to wake up in the morning and feel like you have a home where you are safe. It is the ability to not have to wonder if the where you live is safe. Yes, I am still hung up on understanding privilege. And I am still wondering — especially after this week — if privilege is something that can be abdicated, or if the best I can do is just acknowledge it.

I’d like to think of myself as someone who pursues knowledge of cultures, identities, and histories that are not my own. I’d like to think that in some way I’ve succeeded in understanding—from an academic standpoint, if not a personal standpoint—how other people experience the world. I’ve read the books and articles about those who live in a way that is fundamentally different than me, be it because they are sexualized by their teachers or (not to compare in any way) under new threats of being treated as second-class citizens in a society that never fully accepted them to begin with, or living under the fear that comes with police brutality in our country, the supposedly “color-blind” and “post-racial” society that I, the white man, have been told to believe I live in.

And, to a certain extent, my upbringing was color-blind, not because we live in such a society, but because I had the opportunity, in a predominantly white, middle-class, Jewish neighborhood in southern Brooklyn, to believe that I did.

John Green’s first episode of Crash Course: US History is where I went for answers, almost by accident. He begins an episode covering a very brief history of Native Americans and the beginning of the colonization of the New World by explaining the problem with the term “primitive.” It provides not just a European-centric reading of history, but a present-centric — and also a privilege-centric — reading of history. Green notes how the idea that Native Americans are primitive implies that we, who trace our ancestry to the Levant and/or Europe, are somehow better because we are moving toward a less primitive, more successful future, is one that comes from a place of privilege.

And, as a student, it is my job, perched atop my place of privilege in the ivory tower, to interrogate these concepts to find a more accurate reading of society and history. What happens when we, exposed to ideas of privilege, internalize them—when I, as a white man, realize that my existence is perpetuating the oppression of people of color and women in my country? What happens when my heterosexual peers realize that their existence perpetuates my oppression as a queer person?

Education only goes so far. Knowing, studying, acknowledging, and encountering make us understand this privilege that we exert (to say that we “bear” privilege just doesn’t seem like the right word) over other people in the societies of which I am both proud and ashamed to be a part.

This starts a new week. I would like to think that protests and the die-ins and the riots will amount to something more than just denunciations and pleas for peace. I would like to think that this week, we can begin rewriting our histories, going beyond just educating and encountering. I hope that this week we can begin to create.

John Green ends the series with a qualified “Yay?!” To say that our history is one that is on the ever-progressing march toward progress and (now post) modernity, toward the pinnacle of our existence erases the narratives of those upon whose backs we have built our society. Privilege is the ability to ignore those who are left out of the default narrative.

This week, we educate and we demonstrate. This week, we show that we refuse to let the dominant historical and social narrative be the default. Otherwise, our education is useless.

 

Amram Altzman is a student at List College.

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